Samhain and ancestors


My great grandparents and maternal grandmother as a baby

October 31st.

It never fails that around this time of year, the pictures of witches and black cats and ghouls come to everyone’s awareness.  Witches take pride and joy in being more open with their practices and spirituality. The end of October almost heralds a season of ‘the truth about Witchcraft’ to the general public. Local news stations run segments on ‘real witches’ in the community and other cable networks may show pieces on the history or ‘facts’ behind the holiday and why it’s associated with Witches. Some of these things are true, others are inaccurate but mean well, and still others only hope to further their own agenda through continuing to spread lies and misinformation. There are a ton of articles produced each year as well explaining the origins of different Halloween practices and beliefs and I can’t count how many times I’ve read something that begins with explaining that Samhain is pronounced ‘sow-in’ and not ‘Sam Hain’, thank goodness! Samhain is a very special time for me personally because of what it is, what it represents, and what it allows.

The Wheel of the Year (the yearly cycle of holy days for Witches/Pagans) is agricultural and natural in origin and the holy days of the Witch’s calendar reflects this fact. The first harvest was Lughnasadh in August, the harvest of grains, when the field gives up its bounty. The second harvest was the autumn equinox at the end of September, when fruits and vines and foods from the earth are gathered. Samhain is the final harvest. It is the time when herds were culled because food was known to be in short supply and only the strongest animals could endure the long winter ahead. The death of those animals meant a chance for life for the rest of the herd, for the humans who cared for them, for the tribe. So, out of Death again, comes Life. This is what our ancestors knew and this is what we strive to know, as they did, deep down in their bones.

Samhain is about Death and Death is taboo in our modernized Western culture. It is something put at a distance, pushed away, feared and fought against in our society. It seems like everything we do is geared towards some false hope of physical immortality. Consumerism teaches this: “keep buying things and you’ll be happy”, you won’t have to consider not being here to enjoy them. Cosmetics teach this: “using this cream will reverse the signs of aging, you’ll take years off of your appearance!”  Nevermind the fact that your body knows the truth and no matter how you may try to fight it and hide it, eventually Death will come. There is no avoiding it. Few things are inevitable and Death is one of those few.

Witches operate on the understanding of natural cycles. Our entire being seeks balance with these things, and so, since Death is natural and unavoidable, it becomes something Witches are deeply connected to and knowledgeable of. We don’t necessarily lust for Death, but neither should we be fearful of it. So, with Samhain and its later, watered-down incarnation of Halloween, we are given small bite-sized pieces of this reality, packaged up in fun and fear so that we can dance with such things and help to convince ourselves that it’s not so bad.

I found exposure to Death at an early age. My father died when I was eleven after a lingering battle with cancer. My mother died when I was seventeen after several health issues that placed her in an assisted living facility twenty years before she should have been there. Even prior to this, I was never necessarily ‘shielded’ from the realities of death. I attended my grandfather’s funeral when I was about six or seven. I had pets die and I buried them in the earth because that’s just what was done. It wasn’t until much later when I studied anthropology and history that I understood why such a belief is ingrained into our collective psyche.

Bodies are buried in crypts or tombs because our ancient ancestors saw Death as a transition, and even though numerous religions teach their own version of this, at the root, this is still accepted at its deepest levels among people. Seeds when put into the ground sprouted and became plants and crops. Something mystical, magical, powerful, and holy happened when things were placed in the earth and covered over with soil. In that darkness, life was found. Why would it not be so with our beloved dead?  Thus came the further understanding of an immortal part of ourselves, something that survives physical death: A soul. Such a thing might not inhabit the same body, but really, who could blame it? The physical body wears out, becomes weak, sick, brittle… But the soul could enter a new body and live again. So, the old body was buried, or burned, and the soul was free to come again and live again.   When one lives a life so separated from Death, as we do now, it is harder to come to terms with it. Our ancestors lived with Death. However now, in a specialized society, we have farmers and butchers and hunters to go out and endure Death for us. Our food comes packaged and canned, we don’t have to see the sacrifice given for it, and so Death becomes something Out There that we don’t really have to be concerned about. We can continue dwelling in our comfort zone and pretending that the meal we’re consuming isn’t sourced from living things and that no throat had to be cut to provide it.

Lots of talk about the ‘Veil lifting between the worlds’ is done with regard to Samhain, but this isn’t the only time such a thing occurs. It’s just the time that already deals with death, and so it’s a double-whammy. I’m going to explain how I understand the idea of the ‘veil between worlds’ and the concept of the “In-between Time”. There is something really interesting about trying to figure out when sunrise and sunset occur. There are three separate calculations given most of the time: astronomical, nautical, and civil. So even when a precise time is given that says, “this is dawn”, it’s still open to debate and interpretation. Hours are arbitrary. They are a man-made invention and outside of a timepiece or schedule, have no real meaning. Why do we begin a new day in the middle of the night if not for some manufactured convenience that says mathematically, it makes sense? What matters is what can be done with that time. If it is daylight, there is warmth and light, so work can be done. At night there is chill and darkness, so sleep or indoor activities are planned. Time is delineated by light and dark, first by day and night, and then in a wider understanding of this, by season, which is the same thing but on a larger scale. But what about those ‘in-between’ times? The time that the sun is rising or setting? It’s not really a time that could be said to belong to either day or night. What is its purpose? That veil that separates things becomes hazy and things that belong to the day can blend with things that belong to the night and vice versa. Samhain is the twilight time of the year. It is the point where daylight blends into night and thus, things belonging to one half or the other can mix with one another.  A body that is no longer alive is cold and colorless. Graves and tombs are dark and cold. Night is dark and cold. So, Death must belong to the ‘night’ half of the year. People who are alive have color and warmth to them, thus, they belong to the ‘light’ half of the year. So, at Samhain, the two blend and both living and dead may spend some time together.

Also, the concept of arbitrarily fearing the dead isn’t ours. Witches have no reason to fear the spirits of our ancestors and Beloved and Mighty Dead just because they are dead. This was a later adaptation made by people and cultures who saw Death as an enemy. Death is not an enemy. It is not something to be conquered, because nothing can conquer Death. Everything dies in some way. Samhain is about understanding and accepting that and in doing so, Life can truly be appreciated and valued.

May you find peace and communion at this special and sacred time.

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